21-year-old wing Rieko Ioane is off-contract at the end of the year. The star will likely re-sign with NZR, but should he stay with the Blues?
The Blues are on track for another sub-par season, currently 4-10 with the playoffs nowhere in sight – a drought for the Auckland-based franchise that extends back to 2011. They earned their first home win of the season against the struggling Reds on the weekend. Based on this year’s performance, the future looks bleak for this once-great franchise.
The team extended head coach Tana Umaga’s contract for another year, giving him a fourth season to prove his worth. Their smartest addition could prove to be Tasman coach Leon MacDonald, an attacking mind who shaped the Crusaders champion backline, but risk remains with the appointment – he walked away from a successful Crusaders team just one season into a two-year deal to be closer with his family in Blenheim. How Auckland fits into the equation remains to be seen.
For Ioane, this season has been a positional musical chairs in an ever-changing backline. His long-term goal is to play 13 for All Blacks, but he has only started there three times for the Blues this year. When he resumes his left wing position he is often a wasted resource. The backline struggles to free him up on the edge and he relies on roaming to get into the game. He is often switched into centre late in games, which has seen explosive cameos at times.
With his new deal in the works, it would only be due diligence to consider all available options and landing spots with a long-term commitment to the NZR pending. Ioane’s long-term goal of cementing himself as a centre will determine the length of his career in New Zealand. If he achieves the transition, he may play here until his thirties, if not, then he may only have 5-6 years in the All Blacks picture, such is the lifespan of a winger.
There would be no better place for a wing than the Crusaders where both wingers feature regularly at the top of try scoring lists. The flat, width game they play so well always ends up creating space on the edge, where Ioane could cause havoc. The move would be a huge culture shock, any ego would have to be put aside to gel with a group hellbent on winning. With Crotty likely moving on post World Cup, there is potential for Ioane to move infield with Goodhue taking the 12 jersey. He may have to take a discount to get there, but it could be the best place to develop into a 13 and the Crusaders will find out quickly if he has a future there.
The Chiefs already have their centre stocks sorted, with Anton Lienart-Brown and Johnny Fa’auli the future pairing. With Damian McKenzie’s electric play from 10, having Ioane on the wing could provide the most dangerous backline in the competition. Solomon Alaimalo is a damaging force that could play anywhere in the back three to accommodate Ioane. With a young core already finding success, the Chiefs are built to compete for titles.
The Hurricanes present the most intriguing proposition, with an experienced spine in the middle of their most successful era. The Hurricanes backline is a star-studded lineup but there would be room for Ioane. Julian Savea is heading overseas, Nehe Milner-Skudder is an uncertainty long-term and so is Matt Proctor. Proctor, when healthy, is the Hurricanes number one centre but isn’t in the All Blacks picture and may find overseas offers calling. Vince Aso played nearly a full season at centre last season, but is preferred as a winger. Pairing Ioane with Laumape in the midfield outside Barrett, with younger brother Jordie outside would be an embarrassment of riches with Ben Lam and Aso on the flanks.
The Highlanders would be the least desired situation, with an aging cast and key players departing such as Lima Sopoaga. The southerners will be competitive in the short-term but could be re-building by the time Ioane is hitting his straps.
The last and most likely option is obviously to stay with the Blues. With young first-five Stephen Perofeta, the Blues can build an exciting young core with Ioane as the centrepiece. The 13 jersey at the Blues is calling for Ioane, who also have young left-wing Caleb Clarke to accommodate. Clarke is a natural finisher with limited versatility so it opens the door for a permanent Ioane move.
Tana Umaga’s deep attack has yet to pay dividends, so staying at the Blues is based on comforts and unfilled potential. If he wants to win championships now, the Hurricanes, Crusaders, and Chiefs present the best opportunities but he may be used primarily as a winger first.
If he wants to play centre long-term, the Blues give him the best opportunity for game time but whether he can develop into a test level 13 in the struggling Blues game plan is another story.
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